Stars: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Yunosuke Ito, Go Kato | Written by Kazuo Koike, Tsutomu Nakamura | Directed by Kenji Misumi, Buichi Saito, Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Producing six films across two years (1972-1974) is no mean feat, especially when you consider that they mostly retain their quality throughout. Based on the 28-volume manga series by Kazuo Koike (writer, who adapts for screen) and Goseki Kojima (illustrator), Lone Wolf and Cub is a set of brisk, ultraviolent action-adventure movies, packed with clever ideas, beautiful scenery, and weird characters, set in the Edo period (17th to 19th centuries) of Japan.
Martial arts star Tomisaburo Wakayama plays Itto Ogami (meaning “wolf”), an ex-Shogunate Executioner whose wife is murdered by the fearful Yagyu clan, led by the cruel Retsudo (Yunosuke Ito). Framed and shamed into exile, Ogami takes his son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), and hits the road. Not just any road, but the “Demon Way in Hell”. Which essentially means he’s going to lead a trail of death across the Japanese countryside, accepting assassination jobs en route, with the ultimate aim of taking down the Yagyu clan and murdering arch-nemesis Retsudo.
The first film, Sword of Vengeance, very much sets the sombre-yet-larger-than-life tone of what is to come. Kenji Misumi’s first effort (he would direct four of the films, with Buichi Saito and Yoshiyuki Kuroda responsible for parts 4 and 6 respectively) is perhaps the most stylistically avant-garde of them all, making extensive use of split-screen, unusual editing techniques, and effective use of silence to isolate the sounds of Ogami’s sword slicing through flesh. Which it does a lot, and usually accompanied by a jet of neon blood. As a series, Lone Wolf and Cub is hilariously violent, with countless heads cloven and limbs severed.
Being the scene-setter, Sword of Vengeance is also the most intricate in terms of world-building. The various rivalries between the different domains, and the conflicting motivations which drive leaders to seek power, are dizzying at times. But at the centre is a basic revenge plot: we’re here to watch the implacable, virtually invulnerable Ogami despatch hordes of assassins in ingenious ways. We also see immediately how others react upon hearing Ogami’s name. Generally, they shiver with fear. Itto Ogami is an Edo Age John Wick.
The sequel, Baby Cart and the River Styx, ups the ante in terms of enemies, and cements the formula: a political intrigue which leads to Ogami being hired to kill a person of interest; and some kind of unique bad guy stands in his way. His employers this time are a clan of dye merchants, one of whom plans to sell their secret process. Ogami must kill the traitor, but he is defended by a trio of bodyguards, each specialising in a different hand-to-hand weapon. There’s a lovely sequence in which an injured Ogami is tended to by Daigoro – an intimacy we haven’t seen until now. The violence is a step up from the first film, with blood cutting the screen in thick jets, and even splattering the lens.
With its pre-credits action sequence, by the time Baby Cart to Hades comes along the series is starting to look like a ronin James Bond – a thought entrenched by the time the baby cart suddenly unleashes its machine guns and shields. Overall, though, the third film improves upon the second by having a clearer thematic through-line: this is a story about decency and dignity, epitomised by the character of Kanbei (Go Kato), a mercenary Ogami inspires to live and die like a “true samurai”. Ogami’s encounters with Kanbei book-end the film nicely. “Nice” perhaps isn’t the term, but in the brutal context of the Demon Way in Hell, an honourable death is to be celebrated. Meanwhile, there’s a great sequence in which Ogami defends a woman destined to be sold to a brothel, accepting torture as a means of paying off her debt. Decency, indeed.
Next, Baby Cart in Peril introduces the idea that little Daigoro is becoming habituated to the Demon Way. He looks fearlessly at death, just like his father, with his “Death Life Eyes”. As with all the movies, we get some fascinating glimpses of an ancient Japanese culture, whether in the astonishingly detailed production design and costumes, or the eerie sight of monks ringing bells for the “Cold Night Prayer”. Ogami’s quarry is a sword mistress named Oyuki (Michie Ozuma), whose USP is baring her tattooed breasts to distract her foe. It’s a trick she learned from her swordfighting tutor, a fearsome foe with a flaming sword. He once raped her, and she’s given the chance to take her revenge on him before she and Ogami do battle. The film climaxes with perhaps the best action scene in the series, as Ogami fights off waves of Yagyu Retsudo’s (yes, he’s back) goons in a series of winding cave gullies. It’s the first time we’ve seen Ogami really struggle. As the film ends, it seems like he’s mortally wounded.
But Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, the penultimate movie, completely ignores the previous episode’s ending, and Ogami is tip-top again. A particularly brutal chapter, Ogami is informed that he will be visited by five assassins; kill them and each will disclose a little more information about his next big job. Turns out the target is a five-year-old girl (told you it was brutal) – the princess of the Kuroda Domain, but who’s actually the illegitimate child of a mistress, and now posing as a “prince”. There’s a side plot about a pickpocket named Oyo (Tomomi Sato) which doesn’t really go anywhere, although it does trigger an interesting sequence in which Daigoro, having kept an unwise promise, is publicly flogged. Ogami doesn’t raise a finger to defend the boy. Such is the Demon Way. Such is Ogami’s logic. Daigoro did, after all, choose the sword over playing ball when he was a toddler.
The “White” in White Heaven in Hell refers to the snowy climes of this final chapter. Retsudo is, by now, sick to the back teeth of Ogami, so he sends his dagger-juggling daughter to kill him. When this fails, Retsudo’s last hope is Hyoe (Isao Kimura), the illegitimate son he bore with a mistress. Hyoe won’t kill Ogami for the Yagyu name – but he will do it to steal his father’s thunder. Following on from combustible swords and anachronistic weaponry, the film doubles down on the fantastical elements, as Hyoe “resurrects” his assassins: three men who have been sitting in underground caskets for 42 days. They travel by burrowing through the earth – something that confounds even the unshakeable Ogami. The finale is an impressive battle in the snow, with series-best stuntwork, but we’re at the point now where the enemies are on skis and are firing rocket-propelled grenades, so perhaps it’s for the best that it ended here. And end it does, frustratingly, without the definite closure we would like.
Clearly echoed in the aforementioned John Wick, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll, and Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition, the influence of the Lone Wolf and Cub series will forever be felt. Aside from the slightly tired and disappointing last episode (the only one not written by Koike), the consistency across the series is remarkable. Yes, the imaginative fight sequences are thrilling and funny in equal measure, and the ever-surprising bad guys keep the plot ticking along. But it’s the performances and the chemistry from Wakayama and Tomikawa as the titular wolf and cub that give the series its heart. Ogami is a man of stony blankness, yet also a man with an absolute resolve to protect his son. He may say that both are prepared to die, but his eyes tell another story.
Aside from trailers for all the movies, the extensive extras include a 2005 making of documentary; a 2015 interview with the manga writer, Kazuo Koike; a Criterion-produced 2016 interview with Misumi biographer Kazuma Nozawa; a piece about real martial artistry and how it compares with the OTT representation in the films; a silent documentary (with optional ambient score) from 1939, portraying the making of a traditional samurai sword; and last but not least Shogun Assassin, Robert Houston’s dubbed mashup of the first two Lone Wolf movies, made in 1980.
Lone Wolf and Cub is out on Blu-ray now from Criterion.